Salt Lake City — Most of us hear a lot of talk about healthy eating, but what about healthy drinking? Studies suggest that out-of-control consumption of sweetened sodas and sport drinks is helping fuel the obesity epidemic among children and teens. Even too many servings of real fruit juice can be a problem.
"Most people would be really surprised if they knew how much sugar was in their favorite drink," says Tamara Lewis, MD, spokesperson for Intermountain Healthcare's LiVe public service campaign. LiVe encourages children to have a healthy diet and be active.
"We've found that soft drinks provide a high amount of added sugar in the American diet," said Dr. Lewis. "Since most beverages have been super-sized to 20 ounces, we're talking about 15 to almost 20 teaspoons of sugar in the most popular soft drinks. What's even more alarming is that these are what we call empty calories. They don't provide the body with any nutrients, but they can lead to weight gain, which puts us at higher risk for health problems, including type-two diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes."
So, what should parents and kids be drinking with meals, and to quench their thirst in general? Dr. Lewis votes for water first. "Water is a wonderful beverage," she says. "We should aim for drinking six to eight cups of water a day. It's a naturally 'high octane' option that not only quenches your thirst, it helps carry nutrients through your system. And, it's free."
Dr. Lewis says that low fat or fat-free milk is a good choice, too, as it provides calcium along with important vitamins and minerals. "If you're going drink juice, be sure it's 100 percent juice and drink it in moderation. You can dilute the calories and sugar by cutting it with mineral water. Or, better yet-eat a piece of fruit instead," she advises. Dr. Lewis recommends that kids (with parental help) aim for less than 12 ounces per week of soda, sports drinks, lemonade, and other sweetened drinks. Juice should be limited to 6 ounces a day.
"Power drinks" constitute another category of beverages that are causing a buzz, especially among teens. They can include anything from sports beverages to "high-energy" supplement drinks.
"This brings up the question of whether kids need extra beverages to avoid dehydration when they play sports," notes Primary Children's Medical Center nutritionist and LiVe spokesperson Pauline Williams. "Basically, the average child athlete can and should get all the necessary nutrients and hydration by eating healthy foods and drinking plenty of water before, during and after exercise. If your child isn't crazy about plain water, go ahead and add a splash of orange juice. You'll get the taste of flavored water without too many extra calories."
Williams notes that sports drinks may help if your child participates in endurance sports that last longer than an hour, such as long-distance running and biking, or high-intensity games of soccer, basketball, or hockey. "But they're really not necessary for the casual athlete and can increase the risk of excess weight gain," she said. "And, they are definitely not for sedentary kids."
As for "energy" drinks, consider that their flashy packaging is like a beacon to middle- and high-school students who may be looking for a competitive edge. "Most of these drinks deliver as much caffeine as in one to three cups of coffee and a big dose of sugar-both of which can create a whole set of problems, says Williams. "Most also contain other ingredients, including herbal supplements such as guarana (a source of caffeine), and taurine (an amino acid thought to enhance performance), but their safety and effectiveness has never been tested in children."
Energy drinks don't offer any real health or performance benefits for kids. It's far better for children who participate in sports to learn to improve their game through hard work and practice."
Parents and teens can find more expert advice on diet, activity and attitudes about weight management at the LiVe website at: